June 1, 2016   Benjamin Harter


From the March 2003 issue of 48° North by Gary Frankel

If you found a truly alien intelligence, would you recognize it? We can teach parrots to talk, dolphins to jump through hoops, and apes to use sign language. But is that really intelligence, or just an example of people rewarding behavior that mimics our own?

In Puget Sound, the great orcas are thought to be intelligent creatures. Harbor seals are pretty smart, and sea lions get by. But the real brainiacs of the sea aren’t so visible, they aren’t so cute, they aren’t so much like us. They live on the bottom in rocky homes, hidden from the air breathers. They spend their time deep below the surface, contemplating the nature of reality and communicating telepathically.

In Octopus City deep below the north end of Whidbey Island, life is good. Food is plentiful, leaving a lot of time for contemplation and lively discussion.

“If the water was composed of infinitesimally small one-dimensional strings that interacted in a quantum relationship, it would explain how to incorporate buoyancy into Fatsucker’s General Theory of Relativity.”

“Yes, I see that. But that wouldn’t explain the existence of the space-time field.”

“But imagine if you induced a randomly oscillating wave form to the tensor equation.”

“Ahhh, I see…”

Octopi are big into physics. And math. And chemistry. They could build great cities, efficient vehicles, powerful weapons, and probably enslave humanity in giant “airquariums” for the amusement of their children. But actually doing things is so coarse and unsophisticated. Once they know how to do something, that’s sufficient. Once you know how to build a faster-than-light starship, building it is just dumb grunt work. No self-respecting octopus would be caught dead doing that.

Instead, they discuss, confer, and figure things out. They might take a piece of tubeworm shell and scratch some equations on the wall of their cave with a couple arms while snacking on a sea urchin with another, but that’s about as physical as they get.

There’s really only one problem they can’t solve. It’s the pressure, some of them just can’t take the pressure. Down a hundred fathoms under the surface, the intense pressure just seems to drive some of the octopi wacky.

Grabbisucker used to be a typical octopus, until the pressure got to him. Over time he withdrew from normal octopus society. He spent a lot of time swimming in the open, outside his cave. And he started eyeing the squids in a way that made the other octopi uncomfortable.

“Hey Grabbisucker, what’s with you and the squids?” they’d ask.

“Don’t you see it?” he’d answer. “Ten legs. Ten! Think of the possibilities! That long head, that big sexy jet. And those big,  big eyes. They just drive me wild!”

“He’s gone wacky from the pressure” they all agreed.

One day a huge squid came sashaying through the octopus city. She had a red tip, huge suckers and that “hey there, big boy” look in her dinner-plate sized black eyes. It was more than Grabbisucker could stand. He chased her around shamelessly.

Now normally inter-species coupling doesn’t go all that well. But everyone knows that squids are such sluts, and Grabbisucker was out of his mind from the pressure. So a couple of weeks later, some pretty weird eggs showed up in the octopus nursery.

Grabbisucker claimed he didn’t know anything about them (typical male!) but everyone knew where they came from. And they knew what they were…they were squactopus eggs.

Squid-Octopus hybrids had happened before, and it usually wasn’t good. The mix resulted in an animal that was as dumb as a squid, but bigger and more powerful than either parent. And when your parents are giant squids and the biggest octopi on the planet, that’s pretty big. It was a policy around Octopus City to eat any squactopus eggs that turned up. The eggs were placed out in the center of town for everyone to sample.

Suckipod was in a hurry to get across town. It was dance night, and nobody did the ol’ eight-step like Suckipod. He grabbed an egg to eat on the run, and in his rush it slipped from his sucker. He shot up a leg to catch it, and then pushed with another leg to balance as he spun on three more legs. Wouldn’t you know it; he stepped right in an anemone, slipped and landed right on his mouth. The egg bounced off a rock and drifted down into a deep crevice.

“Oops!” Suckipod looked around nervously. Nobody else noticed his accident, so he gathered himself up and hurried off to the dance.

In the inky darkness of Octopus City the days turned to years; a new explanation of high temperature super conductors was discovered, cold fusion was perfected, and the DVD player was invented. And no one noticed a small ten-legged animal swimming up out of a deep crevice in a strange corkscrew motion.

*  *  *  *  *  *

I chartered a Catalina 36 out of Shilshole for a week of relaxation. After a rough summer of heat, humidity and East coast craziness, I was all ready for a few days of laid back Northwest attitudes and cool Puget Sound breezes.

I’m a pretty good sailor. I mean, I don’t know all the terminology and everything, but I’ve been all over Chesapeake Bay with my pals and we’ve never had much trouble. You pull this rope, loosen that rope, and eventually the boat starts moving. As long as you don’t run aground or run out of beer, everything is cool.

My first day of Puget Sound sailing didn’t impress me very much. It was cold, cloudy, with a drizzling rain and no wind. I ran the engine the whole way north and watched the low gray clouds and the slick green water slip slowly past.

I relied on the “iron spinnaker” all the way to Oak Harbor, where I’d planned to spend the night. After a long day of motoring, I was ready to tie up and spend some quality time drinking beers in town. Tomorrow I’d cut through Deception Pass and, with luck, I’d be sitting in the hot tubs at Rosario before the sun went down. With a lot of luck, I wouldn’t be alone.

After a nice dinner in town and a couple of beers, I headed back to the guest dock. At the top of the ramp, some people were gathered. A younger man in dirty blue coveralls was talking.

“It’s been 20 years since that family was killed in the Pass. And it’s been 20 years since we’ve had a tide this low. What’s it going to be tomorrow, a minus 18? You know what they call that tide don’t you? Where do you think it got that name.

“Oh, here we go again. That crappy old boat was bound to sink. was just a matter of time. There’s no need for sea monsters or ghosts to explain it.”

“Yeah, I expect that boat wasn’t much.” An older, leather-faced man in a gray wool sweater and a blue watch cap was sipping coffee from a beat up mug, “But how do you explain those marks on the hull? And where’s Crazy Gary? You know he always spends Saturdays on that piece of crap.”

“Y’ hear he’s got family in California. He’s probably down there visiting” the other younger fellow replied, with a nervous look as he scanned the calm waters of the marina.

There was a moment of silence as all of them looked at the deck, avoiding each other’s eyes. Then the old man spoke quietly.

“He’s not in California.”

Nobody said anything after that.

“Hey, I’m going to Rosario tomorrow. Is there anything you suggest I see between here and there?” I asked. I held up a plastic-coated place mat I’d found in town. It had a nice map of the area on it.

Everyone turned to face me. They weren’t a particularly friendly looking bunch. The old guy in the watch cap looked me in the eye and said quietly,“Was anybody talking to you, boy?”

“Uh, no.”

“I didn’t think so.”

They all turned away and started walking up the dock towards town. I was left standing there by myself. I started staring at the large Marine Guide painted on the wall.

“I wonder if there’s a pump out station on Lopez…” My finger traced a line for Oak Harbor towards the San Juans.

Without warning, SLAM! I was body-checked into the wall of the marina office. The smell of alcoholism and living on the streets filled the air as my eyes came back into focus.

The dirtiest, filthiest, long-haired, crazy-eyed, one-legged old coot I’d ever seen had grabbed me with both hands and was holding me against the wall. Under a faded stained Greek fisherman hat, his yellowed eyes were wide open as he hissed at me.

“It’s the death tide today. Stay on shore! It got my wife, my dog, and my leg…and it will be back today. Stay away from the water, and for God’s sake stay out of the Pass. The monster is back… and she’s back to feed!”

With surprising speed, he dropped me and disappeared around a corner hobbling on his one leg and a wooden crutch. I stood alone on the dock, still clutching my map.

“Well, that was different,” I said out loud, to nobody.

I’ve lived long enough to encounter my share of lunatics, particularly around boats. Sea monsters? I’ve heard about the rain, the cold, and the unreliable winds…but nobody said anything about sea monsters when I was setting up this charter.

The ranting of some drunk wasn’t going to upset me. I crawled into my bunk and the soft slapping of the waves lulled me to sleep.

I cast off early the next morning. I had a long way to go to make Rosario before the restaurant closed. Motoring out of the winding entrance to Oak Harbor I followed the buoys and tried to dodge all the crab pots. The point to port was a black outline against the dimly illuminated sky. To starboard, a huge mud flat glistened in the moonlight.

I shut down the engine and steered north. A gentle breeze filled the sails as I settled onto a comfortable broad reach. The GPS was showing about 4 knots.

“Wow, I sure do know how to set a sail” I thought. “Four knots under these conditions! Damn, I’m good.”

The early morning sky slowly lightened as the boat slipped quietly through the calm waters. Everything was going fine, except that there was something wrong with the GPS. The knot meter was showing three knots, but the GPS said I was going over six! Stupid GPS was obviously broken.

I did seem to be making awfully good time, however. In just a couple hours I was already approaching Deception Pass. The shoreline was getting more visible in the morning glow, and it sure did seem to be going past quickly. The knot meter still showed three, but the GPS was up to 11. I passed a nun buoy and it was kicking up a wake like a speedboat.

“Y’ wonder if there’s some kind of current out here…?”

Deception Pass looked pretty narrow on the placemat, so I decided to lower the sails and turn on the engine. The little diesel started right up and soon I was putting along, right on course for the pass. The GPS was showing almost 15 knots. Weird.

A huge rock rushed by to starboard. The roar of white water and the spray of a crashing torrent convinced me. I was in a current, and a pretty darn strong one. And there really wasn’t a darn thing I could do about it.

The calm Sound had suddenly turned into a wild roller coaster ride. Huge standing waves broke over the bow, cascaded down the cabin top and fell into the cockpit drenching me with ice-cold salt water. Rocks and sandy spits and trees flew by on both sides. Even with the engine at full throttle, the rudder was useless and the boat began to spin in the eddies and back currents that grabbed the hull.

I clutched the stainless wheel for all my life and stood with my feet braced as I rode the boat through the channel like a raft down the Colorado. The boat spun and dropped into a huge trough with a sickening fall. Spray stung my face and the salt water blurred my vision. Then the boat bobbed to the top the next towering swell. From this high vantage point, I could clearly see the rapidly approaching bridge. Just beyond, there was calm water. If I could just hang on for a couple more minutes, I might just make it.

But what’s that dark circle below the bridge? The fear that had gripped me for the past several minutes escalated to absolute terror. A whirlpool was directly ahead, fifty yards across and swirling like a milk shake in a blender. Water spun in and disappeared into a hole that seemed to have no bottom.

In slow motion, the boat teetered on the edge of the whirlpool. Then I felt the current grab the keel and the boat lurched over the edge. In a vast counterclockwise dance, I was spinning around, descending into certain death. When it seemed that things couldn’t get any worse, they suddenly got much, much worse.

At the bottom of the whirlpool there was a huge black eye staring up at me. It wasn’t possible! The eye splashed under the water, and a parrot’s beak the size of a small car appeared, surrounded by a riot of tentacles and suction cups. Each suction cup was the size of an extra large pizza, and the tentacles were as thick as tree trunks. They squirmed and flailed like a bowl full snakes, reaching up towards me from all sides.

Faster and faster the boat spun down towards the reaching arms of doom and that horrible beak. I closed my eyes and waited for death.

I stiffened and screamed as an ice cold slimy arm reached around my waist and closed on me like an anaconda. With a sudden yank I was pulled out of the boat. My puny hands on the wheel were no match for the beast’s strength.

I expected to feel myself dropping down, but instead I was shooting upwards. I dared to open my eyes, and far below me I could see the sailboat disappearing into the bottom of the whirlpool. The mast ripped off with a loud crack as the hull was sucked under.

I looked up, and hanging from the bridge was a huge octopus. He was holding onto the bridge with three long tentacles, and pulling me upward with two more. With surprising speed, he crawled along the underside of the metal bridge structure and swung me towards the shore. He dropped me gently on the grassy hillside and then in one fluid motion leapt from the bridge and disappeared under the turbulent water.

* * * * * *

Deep below the swirling surface of the water, the eight-legged leviathan jetted towards the giant squid.

“Dammit Squiddy, I told you to leave the air-breathers alone!” Grabbisucker was clearly upset. “You go back to your cave and don’t come out until you can behave!”

Kids! What are you going to do with ‘em” he telepathed to the other octopi.

* * * * * *

Back in the atmosphere, I was wet, cold, and confused. I climbed the hill and hitched a ride to Anacortes; hopped a bus back to Seattle. I took the next flight back to New York. I didn’t get my deposit back on the boat. I didn’t care.